Peaceful Conflict Resolution
(also known as “Fair Fighting"1)
for partners, families, friends, teammates, & neighbors
by Richard H. Martin, D.Min.
Couple and Family Therapist, Mediator
Why “Fight Fair”?
Every study of close relationships––whether romantic, friendly, team- or neighborly––reveals that the way two people argue (or “fight”) is the prime determinant as to whether that relationship becomes closer and more fruitful, or becomes more distant, more conflictual, terminates, or degenerates into “war.” “It’s not the amount of empathy or understanding in a relationship that predicts who is going to ‘make it,’ and who is going to divorce,” writes Howard Markman, professor of psychology at the University of Denver. “It’s the zingers2 or negative behaviors that are far more predictive over time. As we say, ‘One zinger erases twenty positive acts of kindness.’"3
We all need a way to resolve conflicts peacefully. The alternative is to be always a “victim,” or always “at war”––and nothing really productive can happen while a war is going on, whether that war is between individuals, cultures, or nations.
When two people live together––including married people ––eventually there will be differences of opinion; there will be conflicts. On the other hand:
When there is too much “closeness”––whether between parents-and-children, or spouses, team-mates, or neighbors––people tend to lose their individuality and spontaneity and become “submerged” in the relationship. We need a way to take a stand for “optimal distance” from one another in order to grow, without having to explode that relationship entirely to get away.
We are not born knowing how to do this. As we say in mediation: “Only children fight; adults solve problems.” Attacking the people close to us (whether verbally or physically) does not resolve the conflict that divides us; neither does fleeing or running-away from conflict (including withdrawing into ourselves).
Peaceful Conflict-Resolution (or “Fair Fighting”) solves this problem through the art of compromise, in which everybody “wins something” (win-win), while nobody feels like the “loser” (win-lose) and resents it. Fair Fighting leads to genuine Peace-Making; shared problem-solving holds out the promise of real harmony.
What Is “Dirty Fighting”?
The techniques of “dirty fighting”––mostly verbal––are aimed at hurting the other person and causing them to collapse or submit. This approach does not solve the problem that divides people, but rather causes them to retaliate or want to get away from each other. How many of the following list of “low blows” (i.e. forbidden in boxing) have you practiced or endured?
1. Judging, criticizing, blaming, condemning (e.g. “it’s your fault”)
2. Name-calling (e.g. “sonofabitch,” “stupid jerk,” “fat slob”)
3. Accusing, rebuking, reprimanding (e.g. “you’re so inferior”)
4. Mocking, ridiculing, taunting (“who do you think you are?”)
5. The “silent-treatment”
6. Threats––especially threats to leave the relationship or do bodily harm; also intimidating ultimatums (commands backed up by vague threats––e.g. “You’d better get in the house or else!”)
7. Pouncing verbally on a person when they’re weary or distracted
8. Gunny-sacking the past (i.e. dumping on a person all your dislikes about their behavior since the time you met them)
9. Attacking the other’s “Achilles’ heel” (i.e. criticizing a weakness which they have no power to change––e.g. physique)
10. Physical violence––any and all forms, including throwing things, pushing, holding forcefully, blocking/confining
11. Screaming, yelling (intimidating, hurting others’ eardrums)
12. Bringing up former spouses, boyfriends/girlfriends, or people to compare (e.g. why aren’t you like…?)
13. Pretending to read the other person’s mind, telling them what their “real motives” are (Hint: instead, inquire––and respect it)
14. Interrupting or not listening
15. Withdrawing or leaving a Fair Fight (exceptions: it’s OK to take a “Time Out” to calm down, or if need be, to arrange a “truce” to a definite later time to finish the problem-solving)
16. Dirty fighting in front of children (terrorizing them), or in public (dragging strangers unwillingly into the fight)
17. “Triangling”––two-against-one alliances, supported by gossiping (which exists even in families)
18. Lying, secretiveness, infidelity––draining the primary relationship of its possibilities
19. Withholding money when needed or withholding sex when needed––in order to manipulate or punish
All of these (and more) we call “low blows” (blows below-the-belt”––prohibited in boxing because they can be fatal). Be your own referee! Do not give “low blows”; and if you receive one, call ”foul!” and absolutely refuse to fight that way.
How to Fight Fair
“Fair Fighting” is founded on two assumptions: (1) We are all equal, all sacred (not superior/inferior); and (2) We all have primary negative feelings (fear for the future, pain/hurt in the present, sadness for what is past) and secondary negative feelings (like anger, which we mobilize to energize our counter-attack when we feel afraid, hurt, or grieved). The essence of Fair Fighting is (A) to state, non-judgmentally, what has happened, and (B) state how what happened made you feel (in terms of primary emotions). Don’t retaliate; that avoids escalation, and the “other” won’t have to defend themselves. Primary emotions create a space for compromise, and apologies.
The Rules for Fair Fighting
1. If you have a complaint, get to the issue as soon as convenient––but no surprise attacks. Let the other person choose the time. Say only: “I have a gripe; do you want to hear it now or later?”
Never fight if you’re driving, preoccupied, overtired, or drunk.
2. When you sit down together, describe your gripe as feedback: e.g. “When you do/did ________________, it makes/made me feel __________________ (staying with primary feelings).
Hints: It helps to mention first what you like most about the other person’s behavior, before you say what you like least. It may also help to describe the limits of your endurance (back from which you will not be pushed).
3. The listener, to prove he/she has really heard the gripe, now mirrors or echoes-back the gist of your complaint. Ask, “What do you hear me trying to say?”––or the listener may venture: “Are you trying to tell me that…?” Remember to reflect the positive as well as the negative.
4. The listener is now invited to express their complaint (if any) about you, and does so. You may say, “Now do you have a gripe about me?” or the listener may say, “Now is it my turn to gripe?”
5. Now (as in #3) it is your turn to echo or mirror-back the gist of their complaint, starting with what they like most about your behavior. You now have two gripes and two mirror-images of those gripes “on the table.”
6. Negotiate: look for areas of compromise, making offers of new behavior or requests for new behavior, until you reach a fair and equitable agreement to reduce your mutual irritation.
7. Review your promises––and, if possible, write them down, so you can both be reminded.
8. Make peace. This is done in two stages: (1) Find out if you are both ready to make peace; e.g. say, “Are we ready to make peace on this issue?” If not, you may have to wait a little, or work on another issue. (2) If yes, then find a way to touch to make peace––either a hug (more friendly) or a handshake (more formal). Ask: “How shall we make peace?” Then do it. Hint: Fair Fighting makes for good loving and celebration, but that is after making peace.
9. Finally, keep your promises, and hold others accountable to theirs. If you want to be a mature adult, you have to learn to “live out of your word,” to “keep your commitments.”
Hint: A “probationary period” may be necessary for each of you to prove that you can keep your promises.
Hint: If you run out of time or energy to complete the above process, you may call a truce, return to peace, and finish at a definite later time
Hint: If there is tension in the air (someone looks angry), it is best to open yourself to the possibility of a Fair Fight by asking, “How is it between us? How is our relationship?” and find out the source of the anger (it may not be you).
These dynamics for Peaceful Conflict-Resolution work at all levels: life-partners, family, friends, co-workers, groups, cultures, and nations. So, once you have learned to “fight fair,” and live in the world of harmonious compromise, don’t go back to childish, impulsive ways which do harm and make “bad karma.” Do what will benefit your grandchildren. Teach the whole world to Fight Fair––to solve problems rather than create winners and losers. If you have a “low blow” landed on you, don’t do likewise. Call “foul” and refuse to fight that way. Then teach the “better way.” If you “fight fair,” you can work through anything; if you “fight dirty,” you will end up alone, or in a world of war.
Assistance in learning/practicing Fair Fighting, contact:
Richard Martin, D.Min., mediator
(U.S.) 413-584-7770 • mobile: 413-695-7939
8 River Drive, Hadley, Mass. 01002 U.S.A.
1. from George Bach, Ph.D., & Peter Wyden, The Intimate Enemy––How to
Fight Fair in Love and Marriage, New York, William Morrow, 1969.
2. “zingers” = verbal abuse: curses, insults, put-downs, name-calling, mocking, etc.
3. Howard Markman & Clifford Notarius, We Can Work It Out––Making
Sense of Marital Conflict, quoted in the Boston Globe, Nov. 22, 1993, p.21.